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The Mad Monk Strikes: Tony Abbott, Taxi Rides And Coronavirus Despotism

This is a man who decries the use of experts. He prefers things rough, ready, pungent with vernacular promise and populist feeling. To be in the front seat of a taxi, no less, is considered a right. But former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, made a trade envoy of Brexiting Britain to much consternation and now fellow of the right wing Australian think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, is clear: the coronavirus regulatory world is despotic.

In a video presentation for the IPA, an organisation claiming with decidedly arbitrary taste that the quality of Australian life has declined by 28.5% since 2000, Abbott insists that Australia has “much to be proud of”. But coronavirus rules enacted “for our own good” were dangerous, threatening “freedom and self-reliance”. A virus had been allowed to “dominate our lives” for a whole year, “and in the process put safety before freedom, prudence before courage and avoiding danger before accepting risk.” Experts had become a high priest caste, with the populace “conditioned to have [them] give us all the answers and to have governments then tell us what to do.”

Abbott sees much gloom on the horizon for the “Australian way of life” under assault by “virus hysteria and health despotism”. Trodden upon were such entitlements as sitting in the front seat of taxis “along with singing, dancing and having too many friends and family around for a barbecue.” A closet Bohemian is old Tony.

From afar, there is much to say pandemic regulations have, in some of their variants, slipped into a form of authoritarianism, creating regimes of control and monitoring that will stubbornly linger. These come in various forms. Countries such as China have opted for fists and truncheons, the surveillance option and a good deal of mistrust over the behaviour of their citizenry. In contrast, the voluntary aspect of observing social distancing, minimising movement and keeping gatherings small in number has been a feature of such states as Sweden, with mixed results.

In Australia, a more punitive, coercive approach has been endorsed, with no better example being the state of Victoria. Abbott has previously described the Victorian response to COVID-19 as typical of a “health dictatorship” where “homes can be entered, people can be detained, and the ordinary law of the land suspended”.

Extensive, poorly circumscribed police powers have been exercised harshly, with the Ombudsman of Victoria clear about the consequences. The sudden lockdown of the North Melbourne and Flemington housing towers in Melbourne on July 4, 2020 “was not,” claimed the office, “based on direct health advice and violated the Victorian human rights laws”.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass at the time stated that, “Many residents knew nothing of the lockdown or the reason for it when large numbers of police appeared on their estate that afternoon.” Residents were left without food and medicine. “At the tower at 33 Alfred St., the focus of the investigation, residents waited more than a week to be allowed outside under supervision for fresh air.” Certain rights had been breached, including the right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty. “In my opinion, based on the evidence gathered by the investigation, the action appeared to be contrary to the law.”

In other words, Abbott is not totally bereft of sense in the matter. Where he tends to fall over and, it should be said, flat in the mud of argument, is his unqualified contempt for coronavirus regulations in general. The economic imperative, not to mention a good deal of social Darwinism and managed natural selection, tends to feature in the Abbott world. No one really wants the aged and frail to live beyond a certain point, so why not admit it? Youth and resilience must be given a chance. This much was said in his September 2020 speech before the Policy Exchange think tank in the UK.

This brings us to that problem of values, a term used with such regularity by politicians and pundits of all shades it loses shape. The jubilant Executive Director of the IPA, John Roskam, was happy to indulge this in announcing the appointment of Abbott as a distinguished fellow. “Mr Abbott has consistently defended mainstream Australian values, often in the face of tremendous hostility, and his 2013 election victory was a watershed that foreshadowed the cultural and political realignment seen around the Western world in recent years.”

Roskam fails to enumerate what these values are, but if they involve a pro-authoritarian, Fortress Australia mentality in the face of a global refugee crisis, he would be on to something. To cut to the chase, liberty and human rights are not for the swarthier types.

The director might well also thrown in remarks made by Abbott at the Third Demographic Summit held in Budapest in September 2019, one filled with jittery concern about Western Christian civilization and demographic decline before the dark hordes of Islam. As an example of Australian values, Abbott was all reproach of the English royals and the decision by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to stop breeding at two children. The royal family might well be “entitled to have as few or as many children as they choose. But having fewer children in Western countries will hardly make the climate better given all the children that will be born elsewhere.” Fine, cradle-to-grave values.

Such talk delighted his audience, all spears at the ready for the next invader waiting to breach the borders of Christendom. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was glowing about Abbott’s “respect … for the brave, direct and Anglo-Saxon consistency” Australia under Abbott showed “on migration and defence of the Australian nation.” Racial and cultural purity, as fictions, are never far away.

As if often the case, Abbott slips up on the issue of what norms undergird his country. Being tenaciously Anglophile, he can still make the specious remark that Australians are distinct in not necessarily wishing to form queues. “Thanks to the pandemic, we’re now told to form orderly and socially distanced queues - as if we were English.” Given the fact that he has been, since the 1990s, a member of governments that insisted upon queues being the natural order of life, not to mention governing war zones, applications for asylum and detaining refugees indefinitely, this seems something of a retreat.

Sadly, then, constructive critique of the global coronavirus state goes begging, lost in the miasma of parochialism, mad pseudo-eugenics and the tangle that any talk of values always presents. But that is the Mad Monk for you, ever consistent in placing bombs of destructive despair into his own bed even as he chides others for the way they have made theirs.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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